Again and again the church has had to squelch heresy. On this day, January 27, 417, Pope Innocent I dispatched five letters to North Africa. Their contents would prove a heavy blow to the controversial British monk Pelagius, for these epistles carried his excommunication.
"We judge by the authority of Apostolic power that Pelagius and Celestius be deprived of ecclesiastical communion, until they return to the faith out of the snares of the devil...." wrote the Pope.
What had Pelagius done to draw this curse upon himself? He had taught that man's nature was essentially good. Christian teaching traditionally said that because of Adam's sin all men were born with a strong tendency to sin. Pelagius said that an individual had the power to do right by choosing to do right and by beating the body into submission through ascetic practices. Traditional Christianity said that men could defeat their tendencies to sin only by the working of God's grace in their heart. Pelagius's ideas meant that Christ's death on the cross served more as a moral example than as an atonement able to transform the soul from within by divine force.
The Pelagian teaching flew contrary not only to the Bible but common experience. Old and New Testaments alike teach us that we cannot change ourselves. The leopard cannot change its spots, said Jeremiah. We must be born again, said Jesus. Without the power of Christ at work in us, uncontrollable desires, pride and other evils grab us and take us farther than we thought we would go.
Augustine of Hippo, the church's greatest thinker in that day, sided against Pelagius. It was thanks to a letter from him explaining the issues at stake that Innocent I declared that men who deny the necessity of grace must be cut off from the church, lest their festering wound should corrupt the rest of the body.
Innocent died shortly after issuing his excommunication of Pelagius. Traveling to Rome, Pelagius convinced the succeeding pope to lift the ban. Zosimus took the stance that Pelagius had been unfairly condemned because of the malice of bishops. The Africans scrambled to convince Pope Zosimus that the Pelagian ideas must be condemned. They documented shifts in Pelagius's theology, claiming he changed his tune each time he was cornered. Augustine drew up a statement of faith and sent it to the Pope. In 418 Zosimus capitulated and reaffirmed the earlier condemnation of Pelagius.
At that point, Pelagius simply vanished from sight as far as the historical record is concerned. But certain of his ideas found expression in the works of later theologians, such as Theodore of Mopsuestia and Charles Finney.
- Aland, Kurt. Saints and Sinners; men and ideas in the early church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.
- Durant, Will. The Age of Faith. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950; esp. at pp 69 - 70.
- "Pelagianism." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
- Pohle, Joseph. "Pelagius and Pelagianism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- Rees, B. R. Pelagius : a reluctant heretic. Woodbridge, Suffolk; Wolfeboro, N.H. : Boydell Press, 1988.
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles.
Last updated May, 2007.